March 15, 2006 — -- Could game theory -- which uses math to predict how people will behave in certain situations -- help someone lose weight when nothing else has worked?
"Primetime" put that theory to the test with five volunteers who have had lifelong struggles with their weight. Everything they've tried has failed, in large part, they admit, because the consequences of being overweight, although serious, didn't seem imminent.
"Diabetes, heart disease -- I don't want to die young, I have young kids I want to see grow up -- that hasn't been enough of a threat," said Cindy Nacson-Schechter, one of the volunteers. "Because it's not an immediate threat. It's far off."
One aspect of game theory purports that more immediate consequences can seem more threatening than those that appear far off, like heart disease. For these people, the immediate consequences were shame and humiliation.
"It's always intimidating to be heavy and putting on a bathing suit, but to be heavy and putting on a two-piece bathing suit and be as pale as I am and as heavy as I am is so scary!" said Nacson-Schechter.
In this experiment, the volunteers agreed to pose for pictures wearing tiny bathing suits. If they lose 15 pounds in two months, "Primetime" agreed not to show the embarrassing photos. But if they fail to lose the weight, the photos will be seen on TV and the Internet.
"What's happening is that people have put themselves in a position that they don't want to be in, and then they can take the action to rescue themselves," said Yale economics professor Barry Nalebuff. "You can always start your diet tomorrow, but these folks can't anymore. Now it has to happen."
The credible-threat theory is part of what won the Nobel Prize for Thomas Schelling of the University of Maryland. According to Schelling, for a threat to work, you must have absolutely no doubt that it will happen.
It's why parental threats don't always control their kids' behavior. The kids know that when push comes to shove, the parents will cave and won't go through with their punishment.
But in a credible-threat scenario that worked, the Russians and the Americans so totally convinced one another other they would use nuclear weapons that neither side struck first
In the dark comedy "Dr. Strangelove," human choice was eliminated altogether. The doomsday machine was a computer designed to destroy the world if it was ever deployed -- the ultimate credible threat.
"Deterrence is the art of producing in the mind of the enemy the fear to attack," said Dr. Strangelove, played by Peter Sellers.
In the case of the "Primetime" experiment, the "doomsday machine" is the threat of possible humiliation on national TV.
The Weigh In
Emerging from the changing room, they headed straight for the photographer, Donna Svennivik.
"I felt more naked there than I do when I'm taking a shower! I mean it was horrible," said Martinez.
Raymond McKay has a special challenge: If he doesn't lose the weight, not only will he be shown on TV in a tiny bathing suit but so will his wife, Caroline.
Nalebuff, the Yale professor who helped design the experiment, predicts all five will lose 15 pounds in two months.
"You can be damn sure that no one is going to see me in a bathing suit on national television -- no way!" said Nacson-Schechter. "I'll do whatever it takes."